Britain’s intention to leave the European Union - Brexit - will greatly affect the rest of the world. It’s not confined to the effect it will have on the British economy, even if that is likely to be major, nor on the adjustments the remaining 27 EU states must make.
There’s more than a little suspicion in the UK that the continental elites are enjoying the mess the Brits are in, unwillingly forced to accept the will of the people and struggling to get a grip on the complexities of separating trade, legal systems, financial and political commitments built up over 44 years. When a friendly country, especially one perceived as arrogant (a widespread view of the British establishment) enters a time of trouble, something inside its close allies quietly rejoices. We compete, after all, not just in trade and growth, but in our national self images.
But schadenfreude is hollow. Most Western countries now face, in differing degrees of intensity, the same issues that impelled a narrow majority to vote for Brexit last year. These are closely tied together: immigration, fear of terrorism, the sovereignty of national parliaments, embattled ethnic identity, and lack of community cohesion. They were summed up by the pro-Brexit camp as “Taking back control!” That concept doesn’t stop at the English Channel. Expect, in the next year, more pressure on the EU and national administrations fuelled by the same discontent that motivated Brexit. And in democracies, sooner or later, such discontent must take political forms.
Popular attitudes throughout Europe now appear to be increasingly out of kilter with those of the political and corporate leaderships. One index was a study of 10,000 Europeans across 10 EU states, published by foreign affairs think tank Chatham House showing that an average of 55 percent of those polled agreed with President Donald Trump’s efforts to ban citizens from several Muslim-majority states from entering the United States.
Another large study from the same source, published last month , showed that “there is simmering discontent within the public, large sections of whom view the EU in negative terms, want to see it return some powers to member states, and feel anxious over the effects of immigration. Only 34 percent of the public feel they have benefited from the EU, compared with 71 percent of the elite.”
Both Germany and Sweden have taken in large numbers of migrants, many of them desperate and poor. Sweden, the self-declared “humanitarian superpower,” which took the highest percentage of migrants relative to its population, now faces a backlash, especially since an Uzbek asylum seeker drove a van into a crowd, killing five, in Stockholm in April. The majority of Swedes now call for reduced migrant numbers; the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats remain the country’s second most popular party and police have been directed to crack down on illegal immigrants. In Germany, numbers have been cut back sharply since nearly a million migrants were allowed entry last year, but attacks, often by far right groups, on migrant hostels and homes were running at some 10 per day.
In Italy, where most migrants surviving the dangerous crossing from ports in North Africa land – half a million in the last four years, with 13,000 lost at sea - opposition to immigration is growing steadily, with the NGOs that now rescue a third of those trying to cross to Europe blamed for encouraging the migration. A poll taken at the end of 2016 showed Italy to be the most anti-immigrant country in Europe, with 52 percent of Italians agreeing with the statement that, “there are so many foreigners living here that it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
France wasn’t far behind, in second place, with 47 percent of those polled holding the same view.
Speakers at a London conference organized by the Henry Jackson Society this week noted that native populations can accept migrants without much conflict - but not if they arrive in sudden waves, not if they remain apart from the host citizens and not if they are also of a different ethnic group.
Erik Kaufmann, a politics professor at London’s Birkbeck College who spoke at the conference, has written that “the most important driver of majority attitudes is demography: the balance between ethnic change and integration.”
Those countries which cope best with diversity, such as Canada, actively encourage it. Ottawa’s official immigration website proclaims that “different backgrounds and cultures are not only accepted, they are encouraged. People are not expected to be one type - but can be made up of many different things and yet still be Canadian.” But Canada’s location means that Canada is not besieged by desperate migrants: it can, in the main, choose whom it allows in. Canada's points-based immigration policy has, for some years, focused “on fueling economic prosperity,” placing “a high priority on finding people who have the skills and experience required to meet Canada’s economic needs.”
It is unlikely that this identification - of strong community bonds, sovereign politics (“taking back control!”) and immigration is much different in the UK from elsewhere in the Western world. For the governing and other elites, the conclusion of the experts at the London conference was to cease to see all opponents to mass immigration and loss of national sovereignty as reactionaries - even though some will be - and to manage the issues at the pace that people can bear. These leaders should not see voter opposition to mass immigration and their support for national sovereignty as permanent, racially-based ill will. If most of our fellow citizens are of that mind, then we really are in trouble.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and "Journalism in an Age of Terror". He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.